The Redsmith Rides Again

The Redsmith Rides Again


David L. Anthony


The large elaborately designed wooden door to the Bronze Lantern swung open as the bell above it alerted the staff that a patron had come to gaze upon the many wonders this assembly of oddities and cutlery had to offer. Now it wasn’t unusual for people to come in with an item they wished to sell rather than make a purchase. Those offerings were often of little interest or value to the business, but today proved to be much different.


Captain Kyle was a well-known regular at the shop. His exploits over the years were nearly as numerous as Douglas Stacy’s. In his early days, the Captain apprenticed to a tin and coppersmith by the name of old Billy Stevenson in nearby Cincinnati. Born in Ireland, he landed in the New England area and worked for several silverware and copper items manufacturers. During this time, one of his employers came up short on payday and offered young Kyle a trade. The proprietor handed him a silver spoon that simply read “Revere” stamped on the backside of the handle. At the time, the naive lad had no idea what he had in his hand. Over the years, it lay in a trunk with a collection of other items he had obtained in his many adventures on the East coast of the United States.


Captain Kyle made plans to travel to Louisville to attend to some business dealings he had cooking from out west. He would be staying at the famous Seelbach Hotel, as this was a meeting place of well-to-do business colleagues that could significantly influence his future. Located on 4th Street, if you wanted to make business connections and stay at a fine establishment, the Seelbach was your best choice in all of Kentucky. Douglas was intimately familiar with the famous hotel and regularly visited it to conduct his own affairs. Captain Kyle, desperate for some ready cash, decided that perhaps someone like Douglas, who was knowledgeable in cutlery and related items, may be interested in owning something with this rarity. He handed it to Douglas and related the story of how he obtained it years ago. Stacy, well-versed in the history of the maker of this spoon, had often lamented on how he brought coppersmithing to the New England area. You could see the wheels turning as he inspected the spoon closely. He gathered the employees around and decided it was time to educate them on this American Patriots skills beyond the famous midnight ride.


Many of the notable participants in the fight for the Colonies’ freedom were actually coppersmiths. The list reads like a who’s who of revolutionaries like George Washington, Paul Revere, and Thomas Jefferson. Washington even made a weathervane called “Dove of Peace” for his Mount Vernon home. But, amongst these famous redsmiths, Paul Revere stood out as one of the best.


Few people know that a coppersmith, also known as a brazier, is a person who makes useful items from copper and brass. Brass is copper and zinc blended together. The term “redsmith” describes a tinsmith that uses tinsmithing tools and techniques to make copper pieces. Yes, Paul Revere was skilled in various forms of “smithing.” Douglas explained to his captive audience that blacksmiths worked with iron and whitesmiths with metals such as tin. When laboring with copper, a skilled redsmith would work with the cool material, using hammers and presses to shape the metal into many different items like pots, pans, and other household items, both functional, decorative, and also for military needs! The term redsmith simply comes from the apparent color of copper.


The redsmith benefited ardently from the invention of sheet metal rollers. By the 1700s, skilled metal workers in the colonies did not have access to much sheet copper due to England’s regulation of copper and other goods to the Americas. Sheet metal production was prohibited in the colonies, even before the revolution, as copper sheets were much more versatile and easy form for creating copper wares. Copper transfers heat very well without becoming warped.


None other than Paul Revere produced the first rolled copper sheets in the US, supplying copper for the US Navy fleet, which included nails, bolts, spikes, and sheathing. This copper sheathing protected the hulls of wooden ships against shipworm and seaweed. Revere procured a loan from the Department of the Navy and purchased property outside of Boston. It contained waterpower, essential for driving his copper rollers. His experience and metallurgical instincts in silver rolling and copper forging allowed him to become the first American to roll copper into malleable sheets in January of 1801. Revere did this at the age of sixty-five. His son carried on the tradition, learning from the best.


You could tell that Captain Kyle was growing a little anxious at the lengthy history lesson. He rolled his eyes and yawned a couple of times to suggest that the school lesson come to an end. He needed to leave for Louisville and pushed Douglas to make an offer on the spoon. Haggling gave both great satisfaction. A competition amongst gentlemen that pitched one against the other in a game of one-upmanship. Bidding began, and Douglas pulled the wildcard by saying, “hey, who else in Ironton is going to buy this?” The Captain knew he was right, as money was tight, forcing the acceptance of the low-ball offer. An actual spoon made by the famous Paul Revere now graced the display cabinet of the Bronze Lantern.


All this talk about copper got Douglas thinking. With all his personal knowledge of knifemaking, he never recalled seeing copper bolsters on a pocketknife. Nickel silver, which is really made of white brass that is 80% copper, adorned nearly all the knives at that time. One of the reasons was that brass was available in the USA early on. The Naugatuck Valley area in Connecticut was the center of brass production in the United States. Starting near Waterbury, affectionately referred to as the Brass City, the area dominated the industry with the rolling and manufacturing of brass and copper. Skilled brass workers were imported from England, and new manufacturing plants were set up as soon as new products were introduced. By 1850, the American brass industry forged ahead of the British and by 1884 the Naugatuck Valley was producing 85% of the rolled brass in the United States. Given the history of knife manufacturing in New England, it is easy to see that access to raw material for the knives was easily obtainable and thereby the reason for intense cutlery production, stretching over 40-miles long from Torrington through Waterbury, south to Ansonia and Derby.


He pondered the use of copper as the bolsters on a line of pocketknives. It would be practical and unique at the same time. He needed to seek out a manufacturer that could make his concept come to fruition. He headed for Titusville, Pennsylvania, a historic knife town known for producing some of the best knives in the land. Upon his arrival, he quickly learned that a conflict of sorts was going on amongst the knifemakers of the town. Some employees had ventured out on their own and took away some valuable experience from the established company. There was even talk about this rogue group starting their own cutlery company. This ongoing turmoil made it difficult to get those in charge even to consider his new idea. After all, nickel silver bolsters had been the standard material for decades and seemed to work just fine. “Change” can be an ugly word for those entrenched in doing things the same way. Douglas prided himself on liking to do something a little “different” from all the others. Just look at the Bronze Lantern, and one could see this eclectic regime.


Douglas felt a bit like a writer who continued to be rejected by the publishers for his latest novel idea. “No thanks” became the standard answer. Douglas headed to the Mansion House on his last night in Titusville to consume his favorite libation, Kentucky Bourbon. The proprietor was Warren P. Love, a hospitable man who witnessed many of the business dealings in the community. If you needed to discuss business in Titusville, this is where you went. He knew who the movers and shakers were around town. Douglas struck up a conversation with his host, and quickly he was directed to a possible contact. In the corner, a group of men discussed the ongoing conflict at the local cutlery company. One man stood up and bid the others farewell and shouted, “I can make high-quality knives on my own like my father did and his father before him.” As he walked by, Douglas asked if he could speak with him for a moment. He accepted the invitation and sat down. Douglas introduced himself and asked the stranger about the goings-on in Titusville. The gentlemen’s name was William Schley, he was a descendent of a long line of cutlers. His father moved the family from Holyoke, Massachusetts, a well-known knife town in New England.


Mr. Schley, I have an idea of a distinctive material to be used as bolsters on pocketknives. He explained that he thought copper would make for a unique look compared to the old standard nickel silver and could prove to be a great idea. William was intrigued and asked more about the inspiration. If one could secure a reasonable supply of the right kind of copper material, he saw no reason that it couldn’t be done. In fact, William said he could do it out of his private workshop at his home. Due to the turmoil, he no longer worked for the local cutlery company and was looking for another opportunity. A handshake and a glass of bourbon sealed the deal. As he stood up, he said that each knife would be “Bench Tested” to ensure the quality was consistent with each piece. Nothing would leave his workshop without this essential final step. Douglas didn’t sell junk knives, so the thought of each one receiving this intense inspection seemed fitting.


The Challenge was now on for Mr. Stacy to find a quality supply of copper suitable for bolster material. He looked into his many contacts in the business and made numerous inquiries but to no avail. One name kept cropping up when he would inquire about copper in the USA. The Anaconda copper mine near Butte, Montana. He immediately boarded a train for Montana and found himself in Big Sky country. He met with the owner, Marcus Daly. Stacy wasn’t looking to buy a ton of this red mineral, but he needed a steady supply. Daly assured him that he could quickly meet his needs, and they arranged for a shipment of rolled sheets to be sent to Titusville from his rolling plant. The only catch was that he needed to finalize the deal with his Midwest regional salesman.


Douglas didn’t see this as a problem and asked for a meeting as soon as possible. Daly suggested he travel to Louisville, visit the Seelbach hotel, and ask for Captain Kyle. Well, this set him back a step or two. Obviously, he knew the Captain well and set his return train ride to Kentucky. This would be an exciting meeting for sure. In two days, he was at 500 South 4th Street at one of the finest hotels in the United States. He thought it odd that the old Captain would be located in such a prestigious hotel. Douglas was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who frequented the hotel and used it as his inspiration for his famous story “The Great Gatsby.”


Saturday evening saw a large crowd at the Seelbach. Douglas waded through the crowd; he finally recognized Captain Kyle sitting at the bar. The two exchanged pleasantries and finally got down to business. Well, now isn’t this a change of roles, now who needs help from whom? Stacy knew it was time to be humble and focus on his business needs. He came back with an “OK Captain, what’s it gonna take to strike up a deal for a steady supply of copper?” He remarked that he was squeezed pretty thin on his Revere silver spoon that he sold to the Bronze Lantern. Douglas responded, “it’s just business,” my friend. The Captain laughed at making Mr. Stacy squirm a little. I can do the deal, but this is what it is going to cost you as he slid an invoice across the table. His eyebrow raised at the fairly high quote. Remember, think about where else are you going to find this? He was right, and Stacy knew it. The phrase “turnabout is fair play” certainly seemed appropriate, and they sealed the deal once again with a glass of straight-up Kentucky bourbon.


Shortly after that, the Titusville railway unloaded a pallet of copper sheets shipped to Mr. Schley. The material was perfect for use as bolsters and William went to work immediately on the project. His extensive experience and old-school skills quickly produced a prototype for Stacy to review. He telegraphed him to visit at his earliest convenience. Stacy had to see this in person in order to determine if his hunch was correct that bolsters constructed out of copper would be a good choice for his Titusville Cutlery line of knives. After all, this endeavor was his first venture as the sole proprietor.   


The copper bolsters gave off a burnished cupreous glow that certainly was unique and eye-catching. The knife, finely crafted with attention to detail, spoke volumes of the skills of its creator. After a lengthy journey, the “Bench Tested” copper bolster knife was ready to be unveiled at the Bronze Lantern. Word spread around Titusville amongst the cutlery workers about this innovative design. Still, most were too busy “Testing” the perseverance of the knife manufacturer owners to pay much heed to Titusville Cutlery. Remember, “turnabout is fair play!”


As this adventure at the Bronze Lantern is retold over the decades, it should be noted that in Dallas Texas, a rare silver spoon made by America’s most famous silversmith, Paul Revere, Jr., recently sold for $32,500, making it the most expensive spoon in the world. Douglas supposedly bought his example for $50